There is simply no dodging the horrors of caste in Vinod Kamble’s Kastoori (Musk). The Marathi film lays it out straight, without any feints or flourishes: a boy in a school uniform cleans a toilet.

Over the course of 100 minutes, the teenager, Gopi, performs several tasks historically assigned to his Dalit sub-caste. He helps his alcoholic father dig graves for the police. He cleans septic tanks and sweeps street corners. When his father is unavailable, which is most of the time, Gopi assists a government doctor in performing post mortems.

Older members of Gopi’s community immerse themselves in the village drains. One of them nearly asphyxiates, providing a reminder that, ever so often, manhole cleaners faint or die from the noxious fumes that await them during the course of their work.

While Gopi is too poor to escape the work, he is also academically bright. He is at the top of his Sanskrit class, and is all set to receive an award at the school’s Republic Day function. But Gopi’s classmates never stop reminding him that he “smells like a gutter”. They cover their noses when he passes by. Casteist slurs are scrawled all over the toilet walls. Gopi and friend Adim decide to invest in musk-scented perfume. It costs a lot of money, but like the brothers in the Tamil film Kaakaa Muttai, Gopi and Adim are determined, hard-working, and very focused.

Kastoori (2019). Courtesy Insight Films.

Kastoori, which will be premiered in the non-competitive India Story section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 17-24), is a deeply autobiographical project for Kamble. He belongs to a Dalit family of sanitation workers from Barshi village in Solapur. Kamble has done his fair share of sweeping and garbage lifting as a child, along with his grandmother. His father and uncle were sanitation workers too. The portions in which Gopi wanders around with a broom, making the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme a reality, are straight out of Kamble’s life.

Like Gopi, Kamble used education as his social ladder. Kamble has a degree in civil engineering, but his heart was set on filmmaking. “How should I tell my story?” was a question that frequently bothered him. Nagraj Manjule’s searing debut Fandry (2013), about a Dalit teenager from a pig-rearing family who falls in love with an upper-caste classmate, electrified Kamble. “I found the film to be very different in terms of its style and technique, and the way it used the local dialect,” the 31-year-old filmmaker told

Fandry ends with its lead character hurling a stone at the camera – a sign of rebellion that itself is an echo of the closing shot of Shyam Benegal’s caste-themed Ankur (1974). “That stone was directed at me,” Kamble said. “I felt that if Nagraj, a guy from an ordinary family, could become a director, so could I. I began looking for ways to become a filmmaker.”

In 2014, Kamble joined a theatre company in Solapur, where, in between fetching water and working backstage, he began to pick up the nuances of storytelling. Over the next few years, Kamble honed his craft by making the short films Grahan and Post Mortem. The latter film was inspired by a newspaper report about a teenager, Sunny Chavan, who assisted a doctor at a government hospital in cutting up bodies.

Grahan (2015).

Post Mortem was completed in 2017 and screened at the prestigious Mumbai International Film Festival the following year. “People liked the film, and my confidence increased,” Kamble said. “Sunny Chavan is now 25 years old and a Master of Arts graduate, but he still does post mortems. I went and met him, and realised that I could tell my story through his.”

The screenplay for Kastoori, by Kamble and Shivaji Karde, caught the attention of the organisers of the annual Buddhist Festival in Nagpur. Several producers contributed money, leading to the formation of the company Insight Films. Kastoori was shot over 40-odd days in Barshi in 2018 on a shoestring budget of around Rs 75 lakh.

The locations are real, and closely correspond to Kamble’s life. “There isn’t a single set in the film,” he said. “I have shot at many of the places where things happened to me, like the shop where I sold scrap as a child.”

The most challenging scenes were the ones in which Gopi helps with the post mortems. No body parts are shown, and sound effects complete the grisly picture. “I had to create an atmosphere where viewers should feel what the boy is going through without seeing anything,” Kamble explained. “I wanted viewers to sweat it out, and these scenes were the most challenging to shoot.”

Samarth Sonawane, who fearlessly plays Gopi, is an untrained actor, like the majority of the cast. Shravan Upalakar, who plays Gopi’s supportive friend Adim, has been in a short film before. “While writing the film, I had an idea about the kind of boy I wanted for Gopi,” Kamble said. Nearly 300 children signed up for the audition, but none of them fit the bill. “Samarth showed up after the audition was over, and he insisted that we test him,” Kamble recalled. “He gave a very good performance, and I felt that he could work out.”

Like Kamble, Sonawane too is a Dalit. Sonawane’s preparations included losing weight and meeting Sunny Chavan, one of the inspirations for Gopi.

Kastoori (2019). Courtesy Insight Films.

Indian cinema has a fair share of films about the complexities of caste by both Dalit and non-Dalit filmmakers. In 2019 alone, the far-reaching implications of accidents of birth have been examined to varying degrees of sophistication in Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam Thaala Mayam, Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 and Vetri Maaran’s Asuran.

In Kastoori, Gopi’s struggle is to shatter the stranglehold of determinism that caste entails. Even his mother believes that a sanitation worker’s son can only be a sanitation worker. Education, which could be Gopi’s saviour, isn’t the level playing field that was promised. Only the sweet-natured Adim truly appreciates why Gopi, who is always being asked to clean up after the others, is obsessed with his own hygiene.

The scenes of classroom bullying echo Kamble’s experiences as an engineering student. “I had these double PhDs in my class who, despite their education, couldn’t believe that I could have come this far,” Kamble said. “They asked me if I had asked somebody else to appear for my exams. They wouldn’t talk to me properly.”

Most people are “in denial” about how pernicious the caste system is and how debilitating it can be, Kamble observed. “We cannot even begin to have a discussion until people accept this reality,” he said. “I want my film to be a starting point for such a discussion. First accept that this reality is visible rather than invisible and then let’s look for a solution.”

Vinod Kamble.

Kamble has been encouraged by the recent swell in the number of films about caste, which he attributes to growing Dalit self-assertion and the recognition that the community needs to tell its own stories. “Most films are escapist, manipulate emotions, and run away from reality,” the filmmaker said. “Society is escapist too. But films like Article 15 are very positive. Here is somebody who wants to hear our voices and see the world though our eyes. I hope I can show my film to [Article 15 director] Anubhav Sinha someday.”

Kastoori is rough around the edges in terms of its storytelling, but its power comes from its direct approach. The untrained actors, real locations, and mixed Hindi-Marathi dialogue lend authenticity to the story. There is no sentimentalising of Gopi’s journey, and Adim’s own minority status is a reminder of what life on the margins can be like.

“I have actually diluted the script a lot – if I had actually shown things as they really were, nobody would have watched the film,” Kamble said. “There are countless stories of discrimination. When a sanitation worker finishes cleaning a street, nobody will even give him water. We are capable of earning our own money and buying our own food. All we need is respect. But there was no point in showing all of that – it would have been an overdose. I want to make more films, and this is only the beginning.”

Among his inspirations were the writings of BR Ambedkar and Annabhau Sathe. “I felt that I had nothing to give up anymore, noting left to lose,” Kamble added. “I felt that I should at least try to make a film on my life, and even if I had to fail, so be it. I have gone through a lot of pain, but it did inspire me, and something positive came out it.”